By Charles Kumolu
IN a society with limited opportunities especially for youths, he was terrified by the fear of poverty early in life. In Agege, a Lagos suburb, where he grew up, he converted his apprehension to a motivation which eventually became his saving grace. Education and creativity were vital in elevating Mr. Sijibomi Ogundele to the position of Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of a multi-billion naira real estate firm, Sujimoto Construction. The firm built the tallest residential building, Lorenzo, in Lagos. His wealth and fame at a relatively young age, have been adjudged an inspiration. Ogundele, who is regarded as one of Nigeria’s youngest billionaires, is rated a brave young entrepreneur by Forbes Africa. The following is his story:
In the beginning
While growing up on the streets of Agege, the fear of poverty was my greatest motivation. Out of the 47 houses on our street, only two people owned a power generating set. This taught me a great lesson that for wealth to be generated, my environment and the people I surround myself with, need to change. At the tender age of 9, I started visiting Ikoyi with the mindset that someday, I would also live there. Today, that dream has become reality. I became a billionaire at a young age because I prepared myself for it. It required hardwork and a strong conviction that I was chosen and ordained by God. This is the basis of my confidence which motivates me to dream bigger than my environment.
Passion for entrepreneurship
I speak English, French, Spanish, Yoruba, and Hausa. It will interest you to know that I have a working knowledge of Japanese and Arabic languages. From childhood, I developed a passion for entrepreneurship. That’s been my only passion to date. I was first introduced to business at a tender age in Africa’s largest market, Oke-Arin. Out of curiosity, I followed my mother to the market where I learned every aspect of trading. That’s why I’m not surprised I’m the Managing Director and Chairman of Sujimoto. We usually say Sujimoto is to architecture what Picasso was to art. We are a dynamic and innovative luxury real estate firm. Our major mission is to revolutionize the luxury real estate sector.
Fear of poverty
The fear of poverty brought me this far in life. As a builder, the foundation for me was very crucial because a man’s foundation gives him a glimpse into his future. Without my childhood experiences, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It didn’t only make me resilient, it was a strong pillar. I have zero tolerance for failure and I believe that a man who lives in an apartment in Ikorodu today, can own a house in Ikoyi tomorrow. Success is all about choices we make and our priorities. I’m quite fortunate to have won the ovarian lottery of my mother; a woman who at the age of nine was sent to Cameroon as a sales girl. Today, against all odds, she’s among the biggest distributors for Nestlé Nigeria Plc. She inspired me to be who and what I am today. She taught me the importance of having a great vision and working persistently towards making it a reality.
Foundations of my success
I found wealth by reading books. My first introduction to entrepreneurship was when I read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Ten years in any university could never have given me what I learned in 10 days. This changed my life forever. I understood two things. The first is to look for a product. The second one is to create a competitive advantage. Also, customers should always come first. These principles are the foundations of my success.
My first major break
I ventured into the luxury real estate sector at a time when Nigerians were beginning to demand value for their money. My vision was simple: to redefine luxury living by exceeding all expectations. My simple philosophy was to create sugar, after which ants will come. I have been doing real estate since 1998 when I lived in the South of France as a common agent with no license. Back then, I brokered a lot of deals in project management and financing but my first major break was in 2011 when I bought an apartment in Paris and decided to remodel it. My friends thought I was crazy and ostentatious but after I was done renovating, I sold it in less than two months to a friend from Qatar for double the price. This investment flip in such a short time re-ignited my interest in real estate and changed my career path forever.
Before moving back to Nigeria, I visited my aunt who bought a house on Banana Island. After paying so much for the house, I still had to help her redesign the kitchen, change the doors, tiles and other things. It was very exerting and frustrating considering the fact that one would expect a house of that magnitude and price to have quality accessories and interiors.When I decided to return to Nigeria in 2014, I had the vision to liberate the Nigerian luxury real estate market and bring true value to customers, who were not only tired of architectural mediocrity but also frustrated by value depreciation.
I ventured into the luxury real estate sector at a time when Nigerians were beginning to demand quality and value for their money. They had been at the mercy of mediocre developers who refused to raise the bar in terms of quality but demanded ridiculous prices, because they thought the customer didn’t know better.The market was littered with substandard structures, going for exorbitant prices. All I did was to create sugar by offering world-class service with superb finishing of international standard at reasonable prices. The game changed and today, most of the so-called top developers are using Sujimoto as a case study. Many have copied our designs and tried to emulate our marketing strategy.
Potentials and talents
My desire to create a platform that inspires the next generation made us to organise a mentorship platform. It was to inspire young talents and send a message to the nation that our major asset is our human capital. The Sujimoto one-day internship and mentoring programme is a lifetime project and it’s objective is empowering young aspiring entrepreneurs with business skills, advisory, mentorship and financial support. Young Nigerian students between the ages of 12 and 22 were specially selected from different institutions from all over Nigeria to participate.
This event is about inspiration.Without the right mentorship, people might miss the road to their destinies. That’s why we have different people from different industries, who share their stories with young people and encourage them to pursue their dreams. Youths need to know that their location has nothing to do with their destination. The project is for youths for now. Nigeria has a tendency of discouraging people from achieving their potentials with their talents. We want our brand to empower youths and help them achieve their potentials. A short message can transform a mindset, just the way a piece of advice can change a life.
Mentoring assures people that there’s someone who cares about them, assures them that they are not alone in dealing with day-to-day challenges and makes them feel they matter. Ultimately, mentoring connects an individual to personal growth and development, social and economic opportunities. Sadly, one-in-three young people will grow up without this crucial asset.Anyone aspiring to be great should not accept failure. When failure happens, people should rather be strong and learn from it. Nobody succeeds without challenging himself.
I want to encourage young people in this country to read books, because a widely read person is an asset any day. Being creative should not be ignored as well as associating with the right people.
Biggest challenge in life
I dreamed of developing what I can call the biggest project in my life; which is the tallest residential building in Sub-Sahara Africa estimated to cost $90 million. I invested all my money, time and passion into it because believed in it. Sadly, our economy crashed and things became rough. Sometimes, life snatches peoples’ dreams away, making everything around them appear impossible. At that point, some people told me that real estate is a difficult sector. They said it was better I abandoned my passion and do something else. I visited a friend’s water factory in Abeokuta and thought about venturing into the pure-water business. Not satisfied with that, I was at Ijebu Igbo and visited some farms because farming looked promising.
Confused and devastated
A friend, whom I lent about $2 million defaulted. I contemplated selling all I owned and move to New York City. At that point, I had spoken to a successful Nigerian actor, who relocated to Atlanta because of the recession in the country. He assured me that I could access credit through a flexible banking system. I was confused and devastated, but I kept the words of Napoléon Hills on replay in my head. I remembered that my condition at the time should not determine my destination.
However, I knew that running away wasn’t the definition of the Motomatics Philosophy I had created. The Sujimoto I know wasn’t a runaway loser, neither is it a brand that lacked focus. I developed courage and refocused my life. I revisited my options and created Guilliano, the son of Lorenzo, the grandson of Cosimo the Medici. I conceptualised, planned and executed the project, even though I didn’t have all the money. It was the most inspiring, most difficult and most challenging time for me. I am thankful I didn’t give up.
I have remained focused in pursuing that dream and making it come true. In 10 years from now, we want to see beneficiaries of the foundation come back to testify to how the organisation has changed their lives and also contribute to the moral and educational development of others. I want to see the foundation develop into a life-changing institution and a model in the humanitarian circle. Recently, professionals cautioned that the scope of the foundation is too broad. We were advised to focus on education, empowerment and community development.
Life of contentment
We must begin to address challenges in the education sector in a strategic manner. When an individual is educated, many generations would automatically be liberated through him. That’s because the level of reasoning and the worldview of an educated individual are remarkably different from others. Through lawmaking, we can reform the education system and make it more result-oriented. Through lawmaking, we can bring hope to millions of people through education. The liberation of every society starts with education. To achieve this, we must live a life of contentment. We live flamboyant lifestyles that we do not have the capacity to sustain whereas crucial needs like education suffer. We cannot develop if we continue like that. This is why I invest so much in education. Every year, I distribute thousands of exercise books to schools. When I was in primary two, I could not afford exercise books. Whenever I remember my experience, I acknowledge the deprivation some pupils go through and how useful I could be to them. That’s why I have been actively involved in the empowerment of youths and women. To reach a larger percentage of these groups, we need to put in place robust institutional frameworks that are supportive of the society we want to build. I think the society we want, should be progressive, developmental and wealth-creating. Young men and women die daily of ailments that could be cured by common medical solutions. Children, who are willing to learn do not have the basic facilities required for descent learning. If we cannot begin to think of how to address these challenges, it means we have lost the essence of humanity. We must create an environment that’s conducive for education and healthy living.